Asuncion, Paraguay (dpa) - At least 300 people were killed Sunday when two gas explosions rocked a supermarket in Paraguay's capital, Asuncion, and ignited a blaze that swept through the building, Interior Minister Orlando Fiorotto said.
Media reports said at least another 340 people were injured. With more than 100 patients in grave condition, the toll was expected to rise.
Firefighters said they believed the blasts were caused when gas canisters exploded in a kitchen at the complex, where an estimated 700 people were shopping or eating at midday when the catastrophe occurred at the Icua Bolanos shopping centre, whose restaurants are popular for Sunday family outings.
The victims either were burned to death or died of smoke inhalation. Those who were able to escape the inferno streamed from the site, screaming and crying, as the air around the shopping centre was filled of smoke and was split by the sirens of ambulances, fire engines and police cars.
Officials were united in calling the fire Paraguay's worst tragedy in recent memory and President Nicanor Duarte has declared three days of state mourning.
"I've never seen such a thing," visibly shocked Health Minister Julio Cesar Velazquez said. "It is unbelievable how many people have been affected. I've seen children, retirees, pregnant women."
Media reports accused the owner and managers of the centre for the high number of deaths, alleging they had closed store exits to prevent looting.
The owner of the centre, Juan Pio Paiva, said he suspected sabotage as the cause of the inferno as authorities launched an investigation into the fire as well as into Pio Paiva, city officials who approved the supermarket's construction and the contractors.
Pio Paiva was taken into police custody for questioning, local media said.
An early assessment by volunteer firefighters in Asuncion found deficient safety measures, spokesman Enrique Onieva told Channel 13 in Asuncion. They included exit doors closed during the fire and a lack of emergency exits and water hookups for firefighters, he said.
"The safety measures of the building were not the correct ones to face a fire," he said. "Everything was bad."
President Duarte, who rushed to the site to supervise the firefighting and rescue efforts, called for private clinics to treat the wounded because public hospitals don't have the capacity to handle so many emergency cases.
"This is a moment of great pain," he said while pledging help for the victims and their families.
The victims were taken to churches, nightclubs and sporting sites, which served as temporary storage sites for the bodies and initial treatment sites for the injured.
"Sixty-eight of the recovered bodies were burned beyond recognition, and we have taken them temporarily to a disco across from the supermarket," a court spokesman told television stations.
The Health Ministry also called for help from neighbouring countries, and Duarte said Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Colombia had responded with personnel and medical supplies. dpa er ea ls pw
- Deutsche Presse Agentur
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